A study of women ages 50 to 79 has found that taking aspirin is associated with a lower risk of melanoma skin cancer. This may be welcome news for women who already take a daily aspirin. However, since long-term aspirin use can have serious side effects, aspirin should not be taken regularly without talking to a doctor first.
Researchers from Stanford University and colleagues observed almost 60,000 white women who were part of the Women’s Health Initiative, established by the National Institutes of Health to address the most common causes of death, disability, and impaired quality of life in postmenopausal women. They decided to study melanoma because rates of new cases have been steadily increasing for many years.
Anyone can develop melanoma, though fair-skinned people are at higher risk. The disease is more than 20 times more common in whites than in African Americans. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight, tanning lamps, and tanning beds is a major risk factor for melanoma.
For the study, the women answered questions about what medications they took, what they ate, how much sun they were exposed to, and other lifestyle behaviors. The researchers followed them for 12 years, and noted which women developed cancer. Overall, women who took aspirin had a 21% lower risk of melanoma compared with women who didn’t. And taking it longer was associated with lower risk. For example, women who took aspirin for at least 5 years had a 30% lower risk of melanoma compared with women who didn’t take it.
The study was published early online March 11, 2013 in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Cancer Society.
Aspirin is not recommended to prevent cancer
Despite this study and others like it, there are several reasons why aspirin is not the best defense against melanoma or other cancer, and may be harmful for some people.
Eric Jacobs, PhD, American Cancer Society strategic director of pharmacoepidemiology, said, “It is important to remember that aspirin is a real drug with real side effects, including sometimes causing serious, even occasionally fatal, stomach bleeding, even at low doses. Aspirin use is for heart disease prevention for most people who have had a heart attack, and has some benefits for cancer as well. However, at this point the American Cancer Society does not recommend that people use aspirin specifically to prevent cancer. People who are wondering if they should be using aspirin should talk to their health care provider who knows their personal medical history and can help weigh their individual risks and benefits.”
According to Jacobs, the overall evidence that aspirin helps lower risk of melanoma is mixed. Jacobs said, “While some previous studies have suggested that aspirin might be linked to lower risk of melanoma, other studies, similar in size and design to this one, have not found any link.”